Wednesday morning, President Trump urged a crowd of supporters who showed up in Washington, D.C., to “walk down to the Capitol” and protest the certification of the election taking place nearby on Pennsylvania Avenue. A few hours later, he stood in the White House Rose Garden to deliver a different message after members of this same group — who carried flags bearing his name — stormed the Capitol, brawled with Capitol Police and breached both chambers of Congress. Mr. Trump repeated false claims about election fraud but told them: “You have to go home now. We have to have peace.”
As the Trump presidency comes to a close after a sound defeat, and after four years of having led a movement that many agree has undermined our Constitution and the nation itself, it is difficult not to see the parallels between his lost cause and the failed cause of the Confederacy in 1865. As individuals carried the flag of the Confederacy, the flag of rebellion against the United States, into the Capitol, it was a moment not lost on historians — and a moment of dire concern for most Americans.
Mr. Trump’s feeble message to his stalwarts about going home and keeping the peace was similar in tone to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s admonitions in the aftermath of defeat. “I think it wiser,” he wrote, “not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”
Lee was referring to the creation of monuments, but he was essentially telling those who admired him to “go home” and keep the peace. Yet by the time he made those comments in 1869, the myth of the Lost Cause and its justifications for Confederate defeat were in full flower. And it was Lee — not President Jefferson Davis, whom many white Southerners blamed for their loss — that helped to personify the narrative of a just cause. He was a leader who had not failed the white South; rather, he had been failed by others. He was also the man they believed best represented the values of their cause.
Mr. Trump’s lost cause mirrors that of Lee’s. His dedicated followers do not see him as having failed them, but as a man who was failed by others. Mr. Trump best represents their values — even those of white supremacy — and the cause he represents is their cause, too. Just as Lee helped lead and sustain the Confederacy over four years, Mr. Trump has also been a sort of general — in a campaign of disinformation.
And if there was ever a campaign of disinformation, the Lost Cause was it. The Confederacy, the lie went, failed only because of the North’s superior numbers and resources. But it went further than that. As Edward Pollard, the Richmond editor who coined the term “Lost Cause” wrote in 1866, “The Confederates have gone out of this war,” he wrote, “with the proud, secret, dangerous consciousness that they are the BETTER MEN, and that there was nothing wanting but a change in a set of circumstances and a firmer resolve to make them victors.”
This constitutes another parallel to the movement Mr. Trump has created. Under a change in circumstances — overturning the results of the election — the better man would have won. This is the “dangerous consciousness” of Trump’s supporters. Like Lee’s Lost Cause, it will not likely end. When Lee died just five years after the Civil War, the myths around Confederate defeat and efforts to memorialize it were growing exponentially throughout the South. The Lost Cause did not belong to Lee; Lee belonged to the Lost Cause — a cultural phenomenon whose momentum could not be stopped.
Even if Mr. Trump were to remove himself from public life in the coming years, his lost cause and the myths he’s helped create about elections, voter fraud and fake news will likely continue, a cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending.
Like the original Lost Cause, today’s movement has been aided and abetted by the president’s field generals — many of them Republican members of Congress. They espouse the same language, stoke the same flames and perpetuate the same myths — all to incite a base of voters to keep them in office. It also ensures that the “sores of war,” received in battles to restore white supremacy in the face of an increasingly diverse polity, not only remain but become gaping wounds that fester with racism, sexism, homophobia and nativism.
There is a saying that the South lost the war but won the peace — that military defeat did not stop the Confederate cause and that the Lost Cause was not entirely lost. It was won through the rewriting of history, electing officials who sought to reestablish political and social control over freedmen and women, through violence and draconian legislation, and by perpetuating the mythology that theirs was a sacred cause and that white Southerners were a patriotic people who had done nothing more than to try to preserve states’ rights.
Mr. Trump’s tweet to his followers echoed these same sentiments. He referred to his cause as “sacred” and to those who supported him as “great patriots” and admonished them to “Remember this day forever!” This is how the original Lost Cause emerged, and if history repeats itself in the decades ahead, Trump Republicans will continue to defend what he began, think of it as a patriotic duty, and not only will they “never forget,” they will most likely perpetuate these sentiments onto future generations.
This is how the myth of Lost Cause played out in the states of the former Confederacy. It grew in strength, found support among white Northerners and has lasted for generations such that even today, more than 150 years later, people defend its basic tenets.
Mr. Trump’s lost cause, however, is far more dangerous because it affects more than a region; it is national in scope. It has ensnared everyone from Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas to over 130 Republican members of the House to the Proud Boys and Women for Trump. Democrats may be able to win general elections, but Trumpism will live on in Republican-dominated legislatures whose members remain in power, in some cases at least, because of voting restrictions and district gerrymandering.
The constant refrain coming from Republican leaders is that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is “not who we are.” And yet how else are we to explain what happened? If it is not who we are, then all members of both parties should reject this 21st-century lost cause. But too many Republicans haven’t — and unless they do, its impact could last for generations.
Karen L. Cox is professor of history the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of the forthcoming book “No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice.”
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